Note: I wrote this blog two months ago, before the transfer of presidential powers, and before the signing of executive orders. I still think the thinking represented in this article is accurate in understanding the function of enforcement. But I recognize, given the current state of affairs, some may disagree with the thoughts presented in this blog.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they were free of an oppressive regime but lacked the social structures necessary to build a new nation-state. It wasn’t until the passing of a generation, and the conquest of Canaan that the rule of law, a court system, health codes, and enforcement agencies were fully established.
The Ten Commandments, and other laws contained in the Torah (like the Deuteronomic Code), emerged as the basic building blocks of a thriving community. Laws, in their various themes and variations, are necessary for the continuity of a community.
The rule of law requires upfront agreement on how individuals will resolve differences in the future. When two neighbors have a disagreement over competing interests, there is a more than likely chance both will submit to a court order if they live in a community where the rule of law is viewed as fair. We know from experience that when two parties are able to come to a mutual agreement, the outcome is better not only for the two parties but also for the community. In situations where a third party is needed to make a decision (like a judge), while a court decision may resolve the conflict in the short-term, it often does not address the underlying problem that gave rise to the conflict. Conflict, created by an emotional process in a relationship system, can be resolved when both parties are motivated to take responsibility for their part of the problem. A judge (or a neutral third party) is often needed in cases where one or more parties are unwilling to do their part to find a resolution or solution.
Health codes are also important to the well-being of a community. Health officials spend much of their time educating citizens on the best health practices available to the community. When people get sick, for example, because of the improper handling of food, they can usually be treated and cured. Knowing what is safe and what is dangerous to the body is important for living productive lives. In the United States, health officials are able to respond quickly to problems in the food distribution, and in containing contagious diseases. The ability to enforce best practices among citizens continues to be an ongoing issue for health professionals. For example, we know that vaccinations are not just important for the health of the individual, they also protect the community. In recent years, parents have questioned the practice of immunization. We may be on the verge of a measles epidemic in the United States as a result.
This brings us to the problems of enforcement. In the Hebrew Bible, laws were established to protect the well-being of the community. When an individual broke the law or became ill, they were labeled as a risk to the broader community. The priest became the law enforcement officer. Those who broke the law were brought before a priest. If for example, a person’s behavior was deemed dangerous, the individual was removed from the community and placed in isolation with others who were also deemed dangerous. In some cases, groups were isolated on remote islands.
If a person was ill, they were brought before a priest who enforced the health codes. If the priest deemed the individual dangerous to the community, that individuals would have been isolated for a time. Once the illness was over, they would return to the priest to be deemed “clean.” If the illness were incurable, one would be quarantined with others who had the same disease. Such was the case with leprosy.
Enforcement has historically been the answer to keeping a community safe and mitigating risk. Today, enforcement is carried out by police departments, the military, an immigration and customs agency, and a bureau of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. Most of these agencies are weaponized to enforce the rule of law. They are authorized to protect the whole community from individual and group behaviors that put everyone else at greater risk.
Over time we have created buildings like hospitals, health departments, prisons, courts, and other public institutions to institutionalize enforcement. In this way, enforcement agencies temporarily (sometimes permanently) isolating people who are deemed a risk to the community. And just like the priestly traditions of the Israelites, community leaders appoint and certify individuals who are vested with determining when an individual is a “threat” and when they are “clean.”
Enter the healing professionals
Science continues to advance our understanding of the relationship between humans and disease. In some cases, science has been useful in developing best practices for quarantining individuals who are a threat to the broader community. But in more recent years, science has helped agencies and institutions understand better what constitute a “real” threat. The advancement of the microscope has aided researchers in understanding the function of neurons and microbes which have led to greater insight and knowledge of neurological and biological systems.
Advances in science are not easily accepted. Science by its very nature is slow to changing its understanding of the natural world and inherently skeptical of new discoveries. It also takes time for the broader society to embrace new understandings of the cosmos. These changes create institutional anxiety because the change is perceived as a potential threat to the broader community. When the dam that protects the city from the river begins to leak, you put a finger in the hole, and you hold it there even if the army core of engineers has a better plan. You go with what works even if the finger in the hole is the least efficient way of dealing with the crisis.
Is it possible to conceive of a society where enforcement agencies operate differently? I think so, but we are a long way off. I’ll present below some areas where I see enforcement changing. In the comment section, please consider ways you think congregations can participate in these and other changes. Congregations have a role to play in encouraging institutional leaders to come together to talk about the values and interests of the whole community, not just the needs of a select few.
In a recent podcast by Hidden Brain, in 2015 health officials in Liberia needed to work closely with police to contain a possible outbreak of Ebola. Those who were believed to be infected were also wanted by police. Because the risk of an Ebola outbreak in the broader community was so high, the police were asked to be flexible in their plan to apprehend the suspects. It required enforcement officials from two different agencies to work together to prioritize how to address two threats to the community.
Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia was hired in 2013 to be the executive director of the Cook County Jail. Nneka is a clinical psychologist and not your typical warden. Her hiring represents a shift in law enforcement and more cooperation between mental health and law enforcement agencies. These types of interdisciplinary efforts are an important step in moving forward.
Feeling and thinking
At the heart of these efforts is knowing the difference between thinking and feeling. Each is a system that interacts with the other. Dr. Murray Bowen’s concept of differentiation of self describes the ability of an individual to differentiate between the feeling, thinking, and behaviors of others, and the internal effort to distinguish between the thinking and feeling systems in the brain.
The feelings system is our connection to emotions. Our emotions are what motivate our automatic behaviors. It is what we share with all life forms. Everywhere we look in nature, we can see automatic and predictable reactivity to threat. The feeling state helps us become aware of the emotional process.
When feelings are high, thinking is low. There is wide variation in the degree to which individuals can distinguish between their own feeling state and the feeling state of others. When the level of threat is perceived to be high, our capacity to tolerate different feelings, beliefs, and actions of others is diminished. When individuals are stressed, they move towards a fusing of the feeling and thinking systems. Differentiation is a way to work oneself out of the fusing of feelings, beliefs, and actions with others.
It can also be difficult to know when one is feelings and when one is thinking. We often say, “I feel” to talk about what we think. Such statements represent our subjective, emotional reactivity and not well thought out principles. Research has shown that the activation of the thinking system can downregulate the reactivity of the emotional system. Changes in thinking lead to changes in behavior. Because the human is sensitive to the behavior of others, a change in one’s behavior may lead to changes in the behavior of others in the system. Being able to distinguish between the two systems of feeling and thinking is the beginning of differentiation and can lead to better outcomes in the relationship system. And because communities are made up of a collection of family systems, it is possible to shift behaviors in the community when one changes the way they think about their family.
The communication of intellectual thoughts and ideas also sets the stage for beginning differentiation of self. Each spouse begins to know the other and to know self in a way that was not possible before, and to become aware of differences in thinking and acting and being. A line of demarcation begins developing between the spouses as they clarify the beliefs and principles that differ from one another. The point at which one beings to take action stands based on principles and beliefs is the point where they encounter the emotional reactions that go with the steps in differentiation of self. The emotion that accompanies differentiation is contained within the twosome, it is cohesive rather than disruptive, and it is followed by a new level of more mature togetherness. (Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 227)
When one begins to work on differentiation, they will encounter reactivity from the relationship system. The system initially perceives the effort to be more of a self as a threat to the system. There is push back which can at times become intense. However, Bowen observed and believed that if an individual can stay the course without reacting back, stay focused on thinking systems, and staying calm in the relationship system will shift and do better.
Applications of better thinking on enforcement
Enforcement, at its worst, is simply an emotional process that seeks to get everyone to feel, think, and behave in a specific way when the perception of threat is high. Enforcement is at its best when good thinkers become a resource to individuals and groups who are stuck in an emotional process.
For example, police officers can de-escalate a stressful situation by engaging the thinking of others. The media often shows police at their worst when they are highly reactive to a situation. Their reaction does not match the threat. Perhaps enforcement agencies would do better to test cadets by examining their ability to engage thinking in stressful situations. I could make the case that tension at home carries over into the workplace. In a case where an officer has overreacted to a crisis, one would more than likely find the family system operating at a higher level of tension.
The role of leaders
By leaders, I often mean congregational leaders because this is my target audience. But if you are still reading this blog then you are probably a leader, even if it is not in a congregation. It’s important for good thinkers to be relating to their community leaders. There are avenues for good thinkers to interject more thoughtful responses to local, community issues. I believe congregational leaders underestimate their abilities to have an impact on the well-being of their community and miss out on opportunities to present good thinking to others leaders.
I would consider the following list to be hallmarks of this effort. It is not an exhaustive list. You might have other things you would add which I hope you will include in the comment section.
It is the ability to:
- see symptoms or problematic behavior as a result of an emotional process, not the cause.
- see process not content
- understand what the other is up against
- tone down fear and resist the urge to blame
- see the other as an equal partner in determining solutions
- find joint resolution for problems
- identify other leaders in various systems (family, community, institutions) who are good thinkers
- find solutions where individuals articulate what they are or are not willing to do
- resist telling other people what to do
- articulate the natural consequences of actions
- engage others in the problem, never avoid.
When community leaders actively work on differentiation of self, the community benefits. It seems there will always be a need for laws and the enforcement of laws but the use of law enforcement will vary from community to community depending on the level of the thinking of the enforcement system. Understanding the emotional process is an important step if one is to make sense of the use and misuse of enforcement.